Controversial cultural artefacts Bought, stolen, gifted, swapped, loaned?

Human remains of the Moriori and Mâori will be covered with a cloth in a ceremonial ceremony on 18.05.2017 at the Übersee-Museum in Bremen.
Human remains of the Moriori and Mâori will be covered with a cloth in a ceremonial ceremony on 18.05.2017 at the Übersee-Museum in Bremen. | Photo (detail): Carmen Jaspersen © dpa

The restitution debate is creating quite an impact. And yes, it’s essential for it to be held – as publicly and passionately as possible. But giving back all artefacts in German museums dating from the colonial era is not the best path to take.

To reflect the diversity of the routes by which these now so prized artefacts entered collections in the Global North, it’s crucial to make a correspondingly multifaceted effort to reach out and successfully heal wounds that are still open today – ideally in cooperation with representatives of the origin societies. The Übersee-Museum (Overseas Museum) in Bremen is already treading this path, and endeavours are quite deliberately not just focused on Africa.

Close scrutiny of the recently published second edition of “Framework Principles for dealing with collections from colonial contexts”, to which I was able to contribute, leaves no room for doubt: artefacts for which the circumstances of appropriation do not seem ethically justifiable by today’s standards are to be returned. The same principle is recommended by the authors of the work published by the German Museum Federation for artefacts that were, and still are today, of special religious or cultural significance to members of their origin society. Limitation defence claims excluded. So far, so good.

But even a slightly closer inspection reveals all too clearly why this guidance cannot all be crammed into a slender 200-page volume. It’s important to bear many things in mind. The facts of the situation are not straightforward.  Huge challenges are faced by both German and European museums whose vaults harbour cultural collections from the Global South. How did the artefacts end up in those museums? Who bought, stole, gifted, swapped or even loaned them, when, where and with whom? Maybe they were even specially produced for museums? Examples from provenance research conducted at the Übersee-Museum show why questions like this are important – although regrettably the answers were not always comprehensively documented in the past for a variety of reasons.

Between two stools

For quite some time now, the museum has been critically examining its history and the origin of its collections within the scope of various projects. The latest brainchild of these endeavours is the new permanent exhibition “Spurensuche – Geschichte eines Museums” (Searching for Clues – the history of a museum), which can be seen from 26th October 2019. One of the themes: the colonial era. Three research assistants from the University of Hamburg have been working on a project since 2016 to investigate how almost 4000 artefacts from Cameroon, Tanzania and Namibia ended up on the shores of the Weser.

In 1909 for instance, the museum bought a collection from German South-West Africa, now known as Namibia. In the years prior to that, the German colonial power here waged a bitter war against Herero and Nama, which came to a tragic end with the first genocide of the 20th century. Gaining access to artefacts from these communities at that time – even though in this instance it just meant everyday objects –therefore proved extremely difficult. Evidence of this can be seen in correspondence between collectors and the museum. But one of these letters also shows that the efforts of the museum ultimately did result in success. In the letter it said that “an elderly man was identified who was an expert in the production of domestic items and weapons”. The assumption is that the man – Salomo Perekete – was the creator of many of the artefacts in the collection concerned. Was he forced to manufacture these objects? Was he paid for his work and if so, did he receive an appropriate rate? But his trail runs cold. Even intensive research in Namibia didn’t unearth any new information or even descendants. The only thing of his that we still have is his name.

Stories like this one show how complex the theme of restitution actually is. And yet in this case there was nothing like an official request or demand for the return of the artefacts concerned. To whom would or should they have returned them, or paid compensation? The great-grandchildren of Salomo Perekete or the state of Namibia? Are these even objects that should be given back?

Opening up, communicating and cooperating

Questions of restitution are not the only themes that should be relevant to us in this context. For instance digitisation of collections and central provision of verifiable data is urgently required. It is only by opening up the collections to an international public that transparency can be achieved. This plays a key role in allowing communication on an equal basis. It would facilitate the digital restitution so frequently demanded by the origin societies, but it would certainly also trigger demands for the return of physical items, the existence of which was previously not known about. The museums face a Herculean task in this respect. Extensive investment by the funding providers is needed – a kind of digital revolution in culture. Nothing more and nothing less. If digitisation continues to be possible using only available resources, then the next generation will still be calling for transparency.

It is only by opening up the collections to an international public that transparency can be achieved.


In the case of the Übersee Museum, the intention for the future – alongside digitisation and provenance research – is a collaborative approach. The plan: one of the permanent exhibitions needs a fundamental overhaul. Its theme is the region of Oceania, an island environment massively threatened by climate change. An area in which there was also a German colony from 1900 to 1919 – Deutsch-Samoa – and corresponding collections in the vaults. So the idea is that researchers from modern-day Samoa help to curate the revised exhibition, and in the process have sight of the artefacts in the collections. It will be exciting to pursue this debate with them and to see which themes they identify, or the significance they attach to the artefacts and which ones they pick out. Should a plea for restitution arise from their work, it’s vital that the museum faces up to it. This wouldn’t be new territory for the Übersee-Museum. Back in 2017 the museum hosted a handover ceremony in which human remains of the Moriori and Māori from their own collections were returned from the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen to New Zealand.